Above Suspicion

Emilia Clarke and Jack Huston

Above Suspicion is the story of one person – an FBI cop who became a killer when his snitch got too powerful – told as the story of another, the snitch herself.

It makes for a messy drama that never quite gets its legs under the table and seems to shortchange everyone involved – the real people whose story this is, the actors playing them, even director Philip Noyce, who, having done thrillers like Patriot Games and The Quiet American, and procedural human dramas like Rabbit-Proof Fence, would, you’d think, breeze through something like this.

But he’s hampered by Chris Gerolmo and Joe Sharkey’s screenplay, which itself is hampered, I’m guessing, by a command from upstairs – we’ve got Emilia Clarke: make it about her so we can hook in the Game of Thrones fans.

As for plot, Clarke plays Susan Smith, a skank smalltime drug dealer in a no-horse town, who divorced her husband (Johnny Knoxville) but still lives with him (more welfare that way), with a deadbeat criminal for a brother, and a lodger whose boyfriend Joe-Bea (Karl Glusman) might be a wanted local criminal.

Emilia Clarke
Susan’s luck is about to run out



Into this familiar world of everyday trailertrashery enters new FBI cop in town Mark Putnam (Jack Huston), a man in a hurry, with a beautiful young wife, Kathy (Sophie Lowe). Together Mark and Kathy have a five year plan to make a splash, get him a bigger better job in a bigger better town so they can afford baby number two and a nice place to live.

Without giving too much of the plot away, things don’t quite go as planned once the increasingly implausible Susan becomes key witness to a crime, and Mark starts to pay her money to keep her coming up with the goods.

On top of that he fancies her, and she him. Mark clearly missed the memo on not mixing business with pleasure plus the one about not having a burger while you’re out because you’ve got steak at home.

The story of a scumbag (Susan) just being a scumbag isn’t much of a story; the story of a paragon of virtue being brought down to loin level is a much better one – yet this film wants to tell her story, not his.

On top of that category error is that old devil called chemistry. There is none between Huston and Clarke, not even the merest hint of heat, which does make the various scenes of Mark and Susan trying to stay out of each other’s pants and then failing just more scenes you’ve got to sit through till the good bit comes along.

Mark’s wife Kathy is one of the good bits, thanks to Gerolmo and Sharkey’s smart writing of her, and of Sophie Lowe’s playing, as a prim wifey who is like that totemic feminist teabag, only revealing how strong she is when in hot water.

The other actors – Knoxville, Glusman, Brian Lee Franklin as a local marijuana bigshot, Austin Hébert as Mark’s on-off sidekick, Thora Birch as her gone-straight hairdresser sister, they’re all underused but credible as thumbnails of lives blighted by the collapse of the bottom end of the US economy. Trump voters.

There’s quality all the way through this, in other words. Makes no difference if the whole thing just doesn’t work, which Above Suspicion just doesn’t.

Above Suspicion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Everlyn Sampi in Rabbit-Proof Fence

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 July

 

Nazi eugenics law passed, 1933

On this day in 1933, in Germany, the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses) was put onto the statute books. It allowed for the compulsory sterilisation of anyone whose genetic disorders might be passed on to their children. Disorders originally included manic-depressive insanity and alcoholism, as well as more usual hereditary conditions, but were eventually widened out to include homosexuality, idleness and dissidence. Genetic health was decided in a series of courts set up expressly for the purpose, with the Nazis taking their cues from the work done in California, funded by the Rockefeller foundation and rooted in the writings of Sir Francis Galton, a cousin and enthusiastic interpreter of Charles Darwin.

 

 

 

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, dir: Philip Noyce)

A simple tale with a jaw-dropping true story behind it, Rabbit-Proof Fence puts a human face on the practice by the Australian government in the 1930s of separating mixed-race aborigine children from their families. The practice went on until the 1970s, we’re told by an intertitle card that comes up at the end. What we’ve seen up till then is the inhuman consequences of a wrong-headed law that sought to rescue the children of what were seen as transracial couplings from the “too black” families now raising them. To steal children from their mothers, in other words.
The curtain rises just as Molly (Everlyn Sampi), Daisy (Tianna Sansbury) and Gracie (Laura Monaghan) – their poor but happy existence already established – are about to be forcefully removed from their families and taken to a strict school where they will be educated to the appropriate level for their social station (a servant or factory worker). The girls and their families resist but are overwhelmed by the authorities. Once at the brisk but not cruel school/internment camp, they don’t like the regime of enforced English-speaking and heavy manners, and as soon as possible they skedaddle, are captured, and escape again, deciding that they’re going to walk the 1,500 miles back home by following the fence that keeps the all-devouring rabbit separate from land earmarked for farming. If you want to read an allegorical intent into the fence – the rabbits are the marauding incomer, the fence a civilising barrier – the film isn’t going to high-five your efforts. It’s a remarkably straight telling of a simple and powerful story. But simple doesn’t mean dumb. The performances by its non-actor stars deliver the emotional heft, while Kenneth Branagh, arguably faintly overdoing it with the Nazi mannerisms, delivers recognisability – and a name for the marquee – as the government official running the relocation department who now wants those girls found.
Director Philip Noyce is a master of mood (The Quiet American) and a dab hand at the action thriller (Clear and Present Danger) and folds both together with the sort of retina-searing visuals that the Outback is famous for, thanks here going to legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle nods occasionally towards Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. That Roeg connection is reinforced by the presence of David Gulpilil, as the Aborigine tracker half-heartedly helping the white guys find the escaped girls, whose debut was in Roeg’s film, when he was a young Aborigine man helping the white girls get back home.
So, some symmetry, a lot of beauty and a fair bit of believable acting, tenderly nurtured by Noyce. The result is a film with a lot of heart and a hard message, delivered with a lot of style and ending with a lump-in-the-throat moment as the story from 70 years before is suddenly brought bang up to date.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A shocking true story
  • Christopher Doyle’s cinematography
  • Peter Gabriel’s ambient soundtrack
  • Christine Olsen’s subtle but ballsy screenplay

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Rabbit-Proof Fence – Watch it now at Amazon